Gerbils are naturally very robust and are seldom ill. They are not prone to any common illnesses. However if your gerbil does fall ill or seems under the weather, then prompt veterinary attention will ensure the best diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
Listed below are some of the more common gerbil ailments.
Some gerbils do have fits. In most cases this is due to stress, for example, being in strange surroundings or excessive handling and on the whole occur in younger gerbils. The symptoms start with a twitch, the ears go back and the gerbil may drool at the mouth. If this should happen the immediately replace the gerbil back in its tank and remove it to a quite area. After a few minutes the gerbil will have composed itself will be back to its normal behaviour. The gerbil generally grows out of these fits and the frequency becomes less as time goes by. If you are aiming to breed gerbils then it is not advised to breed from affected individuals as it can be passed down from generation to generation. It can be distressing for owners to witness these fits, however provided you follow the above instructions your gerbil will recover fully. There have been cases recorded where the gerbil has unfortunately died, however these are extremely rare and may have been secondary to some other ailment such as a brain tumour.
This is fairly common and usually very easy to remedy Most of the time the cause is allergy. Gerbils can be easily irritated by the aromatic oils produced by cedar shavings. Some are also allergic to pine. Using Aspen or paper based bedding is much better for gerbils that have allergies. Another cause for sore noses can also be Staphylococci bacilli. Your vet can easily treat this and prescribe an antibiotic ointment. Gerbils kept in a cage will very often get sore noses. This is because the gerbil will chew constantly at the bars very often rubbing all the fur off around the nose as well. All you need to do is to simply remove the gerbil to an old aquarium where it will burrow around and be much happier.
Luckily this is not so common in gerbils. One of the causes of this is sawdust which can get into the membranes of the eye and cause irritation. The gerbil will produce copious quantities of red "sleep" like mucous. Treatment is in the form of antibiotic drops from the Vet.
This can result from excessive cleaning but can also be due to mites. Mites can be treated with the sprays or Ivermectin sold in petshops. A serious infestation may need veterinary treatment. Gerbils can sometimes have a benign growth on the ear that can grow quite fast. It can look like a pink cauliflower. If the gerbil catches this when cleaning it can also bleed. These growths are usually harmless and do not need to be removed unless they are blocking the ear canal.
Loss of Tail
As previously mentioned, a gerbil's tail is quite fragile and rough handling can cause the tuft to come away. Often the bone will be left behind. Whilst it does not look very pleasant, the bone will dry out and then auto amputate after a few days and the end will heal over naturally. I have come across cases where an entire tail has been pulled off. When this happens it is better to get the gerbil examined by a Vet to check that no other damage has been caused. The gerbil will learn to adapt to the loss and will hardly notice its injury.
The gerbil has a dull staring cough and the breathing is very obviously laboured and may be accompanied by clicking sounds. Prompt veterinary treatment is vital in the form of antibiotics. If treated early, there is a good chance that the gerbil will recover.
Diarrhoea is extremely serious and should be investigated immediately as it can be a sign of Tyzzer's Disease. Any gerbil or gerbils that show signs of diarrhoea should be separated from any other gerbils. You should then see a vet so that you can treat all your gerbils with antibiotics. The infections that cause this problem are very easily spread. Everything, that has come into contact with the gerbils, including your hands, should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Not all gerbils with Tyzzer's Disease will have diarrhoea as it is only one of many symptoms, including paralysis. Other causes of diarrhoea in gerbils are Listeria and Salmonella. These should be treated in the same way as Tyzzer's Disease. Both can be passed on to humans and in some circumstances can be serious so diarrhoea in gerbils should never be ignored.
Mites and fleas
Thankfully these are very rare. Common causes are through infected bedding, food or even other animals. It is now possible to buy over the counter anti mite products which contain Ivermectin. This can be applied directly to the gerbil and is perfectly safe to use. Sprays are also available to use in the tank. The Ivermectin will also provide on going protection from further infestation for a period of a few months, although it may be necessary to repeat the treatment and seek advice from a Vet if there is serious infestation.
Inner Ear Problems
This is more common in older gerbils, and is recognisable when the gerbil has a head tilt. This is caused principally by a cyst in the ear known as a cholesteatoma. These cysts are common in gerbils and are untreatable. However, the chronic condition caused by these cysts, where the gerbil loses balance and often circles whilst holding its head at a very unusual angle, is treatable using antibiotics. This chronic condition is caused by an infection that is secondary to the cholesteatoma. The best treatment is an anti-inflammatory injection administered by your Vet, and treatment with antibiotics such as Baytril. In the majority of cases a reduced head tilt remains even though `the chronic phase of the condition has passed, but your gerbil will adapt to this and will enjoy life as much as he ever did. Be aware that this problem can reoccur. If the chronic phase of this condition is not treated then the gerbil will often become totally incapable of caring for itself, it will collapse and quickly die.
As in humans, these are more common in older gerbils. It is recognisable by paralysis or weakness down one side. The best treatment is to try and make the gerbil as comfortable as possible and keep it warm and seek immediate Veterinary treatment. In some cases another stroke follows fairly soon after and the gerbil may unfortunately die. Recovery is possible though and in some cases and the gerbil may be left with little or no disability. The important thing is to make sure the gerbil can feed and drink until it recovers enough to do this itself.
Scent gland tumours
If you look at your gerbil’s belly, you will see that there is a large dry looking area of skin. This is known as a scent gland and it secretes a sebum based scent that gerbils use to mark their territory. More dominant gerbils will be seen rubbing their bellies on all the objects in their home. Sometimes this gland gets ulcerated or inflamed and this is usually the first sign of a scent gland tumour. Fortunately, these are not normally very aggressive and usually stay confined to the scent gland area. The best course is usually to have your vet remove the tumour. The procedure, under anaesthetic, is not without risk, but has a high success rate and the tumour does not normally return if the surgery is carried out as soon as the problem is identified.
The gerbil may have laboured breathing and may have swelling in the abdominal area due to build up of fluid. It is best to seek advice from a Vet, who may be able to draw off the excess fluid and make the gerbil more comfortable. Unfortunately the prognosis is not very good in these cases.
These are confined to older female gerbils and it will look like the gerbil is pregnant with a swollen abdomen or look like there is a bulge on one side. This is normally an ovarian cyst. These can get very large, but are usually harmless and can be ignored. There can be problems where the cyst presses against a nerve or organ and stops it working properly. If your gerbil appears to be less active than normal or otherwise unwell consult your vet. It may be possible to remove the affected ovary, but this is a major procedure and your vet will be best placed to advice you of the best options in each case.